Perfect Blend: Coffee Roaster Draws On Science, Art

By Tim Kelly
Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, Wash.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)  The “f-stop” is a joint business venture for 68 year old coffee entrepreneur David Adler and his wife, Kris Carroll, who does fine art photography. The couple has invested in a building and a commercial roaster to become a wholesale coffee supplier. Kris will display her photography in the loft of the new building. Throughout their journey into the coffee industry, the Adlers have been instrumental in empowering women in Nicaragua where they source the coffee beans. 

Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, Wash.

From Greenwich Village coffeehouses in their bohemian heyday in the ’60s, to San Francisco where he was drawn to the hippie counterculture and worked on the docks unloading bags of imported aromatic beans, to a coffee-growing cooperative in Nicaragua supported by a Bainbridge Island nonprofit, David Adler has a long history and fascination with coffee.

He also had a career as a scientist, which included earning a Ph. D in genetic pathology from the University of Washington.

Now, the 68-year-old Adler is becoming an entrepreneur, expanding what’s been mostly a hobby for more than a decade into a wholesale coffee roasting business.

“To me, this is the perfect blend of science and art,” he said during a recent conversation at Fstopcafé on Bainbridge, “which is maybe what I was always looking for.”

It’s also a business venture for Adler and his wife, Kris Carroll, who does fine art photography (hence the camera term “f-stop” in the name) and has set up shop in the loft of the condo unit they bought in the IslandCraft development on Bainbridge.

The first wholesale customer Adler signed up is Jake’s Pickup, and he’s roasting a special espresso blend for the gourmet deli that chef Jake Angel operates in the Black Bear Market at the Chevron station on High School Road.

Fstopcafé is not actually a new business; the couple have been regulars for several years at the local farmers market, selling coffee from a small trailer. Adler said the java brewed from his artisan roasted beans has been well received, but being a weekend vendor isn’t a foundation for launching a viable wholesale business.

“I would say the farmers market is more for exposure, and community spirit,” he said.

Investing in themselves
Their decision to invest in buying a building and a commercial roaster to become a wholesale coffee supplier, Adler explained, was partly motivated by concerns he and Carroll had about having adequate retirement savings.

As one of 14 members in the LLC formed to develop IslandCraft — a $3.5 million project that consists of two buildings near the island’s Day Road business parks and industrial areas — the couple had to pay off their share of a construction loan. The LLC was dissolved after the loan was repaid.

The Fstopcafé owners got help from Community Capital Development (now called Business Impact NW), a Seattle nonprofit that provides business assistance to underbanked entrepreneurs, on getting a loan for their LLC debt and on developing a business plan for their expansion.

Adler, who worked 12 years for ZymoGenetics in Seattle until the company made major layoffs in 2008, said they’re financing their start-up venture basically by cashing out their 401(k) retirement account. The couple thought they had insufficient savings for retirement, and weren’t comfortable with current prospects for their investment portfolio.

Carroll puts it this way: “What looks better, the stock market or Bainbridge Island real estate?”

So they invested roughly $300,000 in the condo unit, including about $75,000 for a Diedrich roasting system that was installed in January and can process about 60 pounds of beans in an hour.

Their setup will include a tasting room, but won’t be a coffee shop because the zoning doesn’t allow retail, although that could be challenged in the future.

The shiny new roasting machinery, with a vent pipe extending through the high ceiling, is a major leap from Adler’s home setup where he did four-pound batches in a simple roaster.

“It was literally a backyard roasting operation … sometimes even in the snow,” he said. “I learned a lot through the challenges and limitations of that roaster. I could not see the beans, I could only smell them and hear them cracking.”

As a teenager growing up in a Jewish and Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, Adler had his first enlightening experience associated with coffee when he’d visit his older sister, an artist who was part of the beatnik crowd in Greenwich Village coffeehouses.

“I loved it; not only the coffee, but the poetry, the folk music, all of it,” he recalled.

One day decades later at ZymoGenetics, “I smelled this coffee that was just incredible … and I followed my nose halfway across the building” to the office of a colleague who told Adler about roasting his own beans. “The taste of that coffee was better than anything I ever experienced,” he said, and it was the catalyst for him to start experimenting with roasting.

He became a passionate hobby roaster, but when an opportunity came up in 2004 to visit a coffee farm on Ometepe Island — Bainbridge’s sister island in Nicaragua — he was reluctant to go at first. But he overcame his travel anxiety because the trip was “an amazing opportunity if I wanted to pursue my coffee hobby.”

That two-and-a-half-week trip turned out to be “a life-changing experience” beyond anything he expected.

“I was 57, and you think most of the big changes, the consciousness-changing things are behind you,” he said, but “I fell in love with the country and the people.”

Adler’s been instrumental since then in improving the lot of Ometepe’s coffee growers and roasters, starting with the women he observed roasting beans in a large ceramic dish set on an open fire.

“He spent the next year developing a different method of roasting for them,” his wife recalled.

He converted a propane barbecue grill into a stainless steel drum roaster the Ometepe women could use without inhaling smoke while roasting their beans. The more efficient process also improved the quality of their product.

“He’s been really pivotal in what’s gone on with our sister island coffee project for the last 10 years,” noted David Mitchell, who helped found the Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Islands Association and led the 2004 delegation to Nicaragua that included Adler.

More recently, the two of them and a partner in the country formed a Nicaraguan corporation called Tostadores de Ometepe to help the local cooperative increase its roasting and sell more of the beans grown and roasted there as a value-added product.

Mitchell said Adler’s work with the the Ometepe cooperative (made up of more than 100 families) “has substantially improved the quality of the roast, and made their product much more profitable and attractive.”

The Tostadores development was needed, Mitchell explained, partly because the Ometepe cooperative is producing a bigger crop of raw beans than can be marketed through the sister island organization on Bainbridge and a Canadian counterpart in the

Gulf Islands of British Columbia.
An Indiegogo campaign in 2014 raised nearly $12,000, which helped pay for a commercial roaster and setting up the fledgling Tostadores de Ometepe operation.

Adler formed an enduring bond with the host family he stayed with on his first trip, and he and his wife visit annually and even helped support a granddaughter of the hosts through college in Nicaragua.

The beans business
As one might expect of a scientist, Adler has become well versed in the origins and diversity of coffee beans, as well as honing his roasting skill. He can expound on the roasting profile of Ethiopian Yergacheffe compared with Sumatran, Arabica or other varietals.

“David’s got a lot of interest in finding high-quality, really good coffee and making it available,” Mitchell said of his friend. “It’s exciting to see him get started with this.”

Now that Adler has a prodigious new roaster that can output 60 pounds of beans an hour, he’ll be focused on finding wholesale customers on the Kitsap Peninsula and in the Seattle area. Through his contacts in the industry, there are some coffee purveyors who have been waiting for him to get his business started, he said.

Jake Angel said choosing Fstopcafé as his supplier fits with his preference for using locally sourced ingredients in his cooking at Jake’s Pickup.

“As a provider and crafter of local goods, it just made sense to switch the coffee program to follow suit when the opportunity arose,” he said. “The quality and flavor profiles of what Fstopcafé produces is unmatched in my opinion. These guys have raised the bar tremendously.”

At the farmers market, a 9-ounce bag of Fstopcafé beans sells for $10, which is about $17 a pound and, Adler notes, less than the $22-$24 a pound for comparable coffee sold by specialty roasters in Seattle. He said he might adjust pricing for wholesale customers.

Becoming a coffee entrepreneur at age when many people are settling into retirement is an odd circumstance, Adler acknowledged, noting he has “a short horizon” for making his business successful.

“My vision is to be partnered with a younger, coffee-passionate person in five to 10 years,” who could take over the business.

“It’s exciting and it’s scary,” he said of the new venture. “And it’s challenging, and I love challenges.”

“The scary part is looking at reality,” he added. “We don’t have cash flow yet … but on on the other hand, as far as predictors of success — I’ve gotten enough feedback now that I know I can produce a quality product.”

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